life-and-times-of-malcolm-x-Photo-by-Marty Sohl : Met Opera

The Met’s “X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X” is Full of Profound Emotions and Provocative Truths

In the Metropolitan Opera’s new production of X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X, there are plenty of moments that startle, provoke, and are horribly, deeply full of truth. You don’t go to an opera about Malcolm X expecting to be comfortable. However, when the curtain first lifted to reveal the whole company on stage, fantastically costumed and under what I can only describe as a gargantuan, psychedelic UFO suspended from the ceiling, it was easy to feel confident that the next few hours were going to be equal parts super-sonic adventure and heart-wrenching bio-opera.

The opera is a family effort: Anthony Davis wrote the music, his brother Christopher Davis wrote the story, and their cousin Thulani Davis wrote the libretto. X is constructed as a dream-logic traipse through time and memory constructed over an uneasy atmosphere, timbrally assisted by a whole jazz band as well as the Met orchestra’s performing forces. And the band was cookin’! Jeff “Tain” Watts’ near-omnipresent drum set kept the anxiety high, saxophone solos by Marty Ehrlich and Isaiah Richardson Jr. offered sheer free jazz delight, and Amir ElSaffar’s extended-technique trumpet improvisations were an entrancing microcosm of the opera’s music as a whole. Davis’ vocal writing is entirely syllabic instead of melismatic (he writes only one pitch per syllable of text), but there were still often balance issues between the thickly-scored orchestra, band, and voices – though any Met musician will tell you that balance issues are inherent to the hall, and that the nosebleed seats are actually where you can hear the voices the most clearly.

Leah Hawkins (center) in Anthony Davis' "X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X" -- Photo by Marty Sohl / Met Opera

Leah Hawkins (center) in Anthony Davis’ “X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X” — Photo by Marty Sohl / Met Opera

Throughout the opera’s three acts, we see Malcolm’s childhood and his life-long, desperate search to inherit anything besides generational trauma. But even in an opera about continuous and terrifying racial persecution, there are moments that profoundly touch the audience. Leah Hawkins’ soul-stirring aria as Malcolm’s mother, Louise Little, tells the birth stories of her children: how each came alive into worlds of fear and terror, how the arrival of each child is inextricably linked in her memory to the arrival of the Klan in her community, bringing chaos, violence, and death with them. Hawkins brilliantly scaled Davis’ lyrical demands, leaping from one registral extreme to the other with astounding ability, somehow creating a sense of love and intuition in the midst of this substantial meditation on a mother’s grief.

It wasn’t until the very end of Act I that we first heard Will Liverman’s voice as the opera’s titular character: in a performance that powerfully channeled Malcolm X’s energy, Liverman’s mahogany baritone resonated with a spiritual weight that compelled as it educated. Sitting on a chair in the middle of a bare stage representing a police interrogation room, a spotlight hinted at Malcolm’s future conversion to Islam by casting a rectangular patch of light on the ground below him. Liverman sang, “You ask me for my story, but you don’t want to hear it” as the house lights gradually went up. The first act ended with the fourth wall completely broken, audience members sitting in a fully lit theater, being asked to consider their own actions in real life.

Will Liverman in Anthony Davis' "X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X" -- Photo by Marty Sohl / Met Opera

Will Liverman in Anthony Davis’ “X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X” — Photo by Marty Sohl / Met Opera

The entire cast of X is outstanding. Bryce Christian Thompson’s poignant portrayal of a young Malcolm, singing “Momma, help me” over and over, generated goosebumps with his silvery soprano; Victor Ryan Robertson’s tenor beamed golden in his portrayal of self-proclaimed “Messenger of Allah” Elijah Muhammad, and bass-baritone Michael Sumuel played wise-talking Reginald with well-balanced mirth and levity.

And unlike most opera productions where dancers are only on stage for a handful of scenes, the Met production involves a troupe of about 20 dancers—choreographed by Rickey Tripp in an incredible Met debut—who are present for nearly the entire opera. They multi-tasked as physical depictions of the emotional subtext of a scene, the zeitgeist of a scene’s era, or as symbolic representations of physical trauma. In the final act, their bodies contorted into all manner of positions that Black bodies have been consistently and disproportionately forced into in the United States.

Anthony Davis' "X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X" -- Photo by Marty Sohl / Met Opera

Anthony Davis’ “X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X” — Photo by Marty Sohl / Met Opera

After the final notes of the opera, when the curtain rose for bows, much of the cast were wearing T-shirts over their costumes that said “X.” Malcolm was born Malcolm Little in 1925 and, in early adulthood, changed his last name to X to “portray what was lost”; slavery created that hole in his ancestral knowledge, and he chose X as a stand-in. Seeing the cast on stage in their X t-shirts very quickly communicated that painful, ubiquitous truth: Malcolm was not the only person born wearing a family name his ancestors didn’t consent to. Many, many people are still born into that very same circumstance.

Designed by Robert O’Hara, this is a must-see production of a must-see opera. Dede Ayite’s futuristic costumes made me smile in wonder, Yee Eun Nam’s projections on that suspended UFO, dreamed up by set designer Clint Ramos, are a brilliant piece of tangential storytelling, and conductor Kazem Abdullah leads this powerful cast of performing forces with exacting verve. I urge you to go see this opera during its month-long run. You’re going to have an adventure unlike at any other opera you’ve attended, and you’re going to leave changed.


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